The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


February 5, 2012

Bonjour Barnes of Summers County

Book cataloging West Virginia agriculture and historical symbols goes international

Hers is a tale of two cities, Fredericksburg, Va., and Fréjus, France — with 239 pieces of one West Virginia county’s past carefully measured in.

Since the November 2011 publication of her book, “Barns of Summers County … West Virginia Heritage,” Raleigh County native Phyllis Whitley’s identity has transformed into “The Barn Lady.” Her book of pictures and barn biographies, with the intent of preserving an often deteriorating piece of history, central to farming families past and present, has sold over 600 copies, all of the proceeds going to benefit the Summers County Library, one of Whitley’s favorite places.

Recently, as part of a Sister Cities International program of Fredericksburg (Whitley lives in Spotsylvania, Va.), her “sisters” in Fréjus followed what their American sibling in spirit was up to. In planning their American Week festivities, which included a film festival and art show, the ladies requested pictures taken by Whitley to feature as part of their cultural celebration, and they requested copies of her book.

Whitley, an artist, says, “They didn’t want my paintings. They wanted pictures of the barns. I was surprised and delighted when they ordered several books plus a dozen 2012 calendars featuring some of the barns. To be asked to exhibit the photos there was an honor. And to display the book? Amazing. All the artist works [18 total] will be featured in a gallery there in the spring and will be for sale.”

Whitley surrendered the works to the Sister City group to assist with scholarships for students coming to Fredericksburg from Fréjus this summer.

“Quite exciting to know the book has gone international,” she says.

The three pictures sent to France, Whitley thoughtfully selected. “Two of the pictures had French connections.”

One barn’s image to cross the Atlantic told the story of a young man who had died on European soil at the age of 22 near Normandy in World War II.

“He’s buried up behind the farm at Jumping Branch. His father had to sell their team of workhorses because it’s said they would only work for the son.”

The second, a barn that held a team of Percheron, a breed of draught horse originating in the Perche Valley in northern France, told the story of a little girl, Jerri Gillespie, who fell in love with the breed her family dedicated the farm to raising.

The third barn image presented to France was unique in that it was a tobacco barn.

“They’re not very common over there,” says Whitley, indicating a circa 1850s barn owned by John and Patricia DiStefano, from the Little Wolf Creek area.

“I traveled every road in the county in search of barns built before 1950,” explains Whitley, whose quest began four years ago as a desire to freeze-frame a simpler time.

“I grew up in Beckley. I spent summers at my grandparents’ farm in Summers County.”  

Whitley remembers the family farm was small: a cow, a few horses. The barn was passed down to become part of the land her cousin owned.

“They were going to tear the barn down. I thought, ‘I’d better get some pictures of that.’”

This led her to bigger thinking. Once raised with much celebration, the symbols of prosperity and protection, were falling to ruin and disappearing.

“If we don’t get pictures of them, people won’t remember them,” thought the woman who would come to share, in part, the structure’s name.

As she took pictures of barns, the Barn Lady began listening to the stories present owners told to her, recollections of the forms in their true “hay day.” Figuring to make hay while the sun shone herself, she traveled with husband A.C. to capture stories and images alike. She soon found people presenting her with pictures of they had of some of the old barns no longer standing.

Not everyone wanted to talk, to tell the who, what, where and whys of wormy chestnut and oak, of upright logs and withering boards.

“Did I spell your name right, are the facts right, is there anything else?” Whitley asked those who shared once she’d finished her manuscript, checking for mistakes, because erroneous history isn’t history at all. Still, she figures, she chronicled the vast majority.

“The lofts were used to store hay. Some of the barns had threshing floors on the first level.”

They were used for animals. Some acted as wood shops.

“The smallest barn had a blacksmith shop inside. The owner was a minister. I joked that he worked on peoples’ souls and the soles of the animals, too.”

In addition to the kindred showing in France to appreciate American heritage, Whitley’s volume is being celebrated for its efforts at preserving history here at home.

The Winter edition of Goldenseal magazine features her article showcasing barns and their related stories. Like Charles Barker’s barn at Forest Hill, one he sent money home from war for and later raised cattle within. Forest Hill is also the homebase where her cousin Joyce Waltman worked to help her in her research about other barns. Two barns featured and no longer standing belonged to Mrs. Whitley’s grandparents, Oren and Maude Thompson at Ballengee and her great-grandparents, Sylvester and Catherine (Elliott) Thompson, who lived at Stinking Lick.

“I wasn’t looking to make anything off the book,” admits Whitley, who once told a woman’s group when asked why she did it, “because I could.”

In the process of seeking publication, Whitley cashed in a personal CD until she raised enough money for the project’s fulfillment.

“I looked around and decided I loved my library and I love what they do,” Whitley, who maintains a summer cottage in Summers County, states. The Summers County Public Library will clear $42,000 total if all the books are sold.

“I would love to meet with people in other counties, share my experiences, and help them get started (on a book of their own). I would especially like to see Greenbrier and Monroe County people take on a similar project. This was a labor of love for me. It was a lot of hard work and at my age.” (She’s 77.) “I think it would best be left to the people in the county who love it as I do Summers County.”

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